It is estimated that a pound of food is wasted by every American, every day. The amount of food that ends up in the trash is driven not just by individual or household food choices but also by a system that leads consumers towards choices that result in food waste, states a new study released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. A National Strategy to Reduce Wasted Food at the Consumer Level identifies changes in behavior, standardized date labeling, and marketing practices, among others, that are needed to reduce food waste nationwide.
The report was created through a systems approach that examines our interconnected food system, identifies and minimizes unintended negative consequences of interventions (trade-offs) and focuses on identifying opportunities to maximize the benefits of changes. By illuminating the interactive relationships within the food system and its many actors, the report builds the case for a unified effort to build awareness and giving consumers a different set of choices that reduce food waste.
Brian Roe, report co-author, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics and leader of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, was the sole economist on the panel. He worked to bring insights concerning consumer behavior and system-wide behavior that emphasized economic trade-offs.
“Behavior change can start at home by looking at our own actions,” said Roe. “And learning to 'shop' the refigerator first before ordering out or heading to the store."
Considering American families of four are estimated to lose $1,500 a year on wasted food, curbing it makes economic sense.
To encourage this type of behavior change, the authors recommend the expansion of the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, an interagency effort to improve coordination and communication on food waste between the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Having a go-to place for education, information on implementing and evaluating food waste interventions and everyday tips for reducing waste, and sharing research is key.
Changing the Food Environment and How Food is Marketed
The report asserts that trade associations, manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and food service operations all play an essential role in coordinating industry efforts to change the food environment. They recommend the development of promotions and in-store cues that model purchasing and the consumption of the right amount and variety of products. Practical suggestions include grocery stores having smaller carts to reduce the likelihood of overbuying and restaurants offering smaller portions and normalizing taking left-over food home.
Standardized Date Labeling
The report also recommends industry, consumers, and nonprofits all advocate for federal legislation to standardize date labeling on packaged food. While most date labels convey the manufacturer’s best guess at how long a product will remain at peak quality, studies have shown consumers often mistake date labels for expiration or safety dates, and discard food that is still safe to eat. Preemptive action at the federal level could override state laws and allow businesses to remove date labels from some products. The report says state and local governments should also institute policies to reduce food waste, such as charging garbage fees based on the amount of waste a household and large organizations produce, with support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others.
After the city of Dayton, Ohio fell short of its recycling goal in 2019, it employed data-tracking technology to provide data about who was and wasn’t recycling so they could target education programs in neighborhoods with low recycling. It also piloted a 'pay-as-you-throw' program where residents pay less when they recycle more.
The reasons that consumers waste food are diverse and complex but understanding them is critical to identifying effective ways to reduce food waste. Working to strengthen consumers’ motivation, opportunity, and ability to reduce food waste will lessen the amount of food that ends up in landfills and increase consumers’ bottom lines.
Roe’s coauthors include: Barbara Schneeman (Chair) University of California, Davis (Retired), Cait Lamberton, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Roni Neff, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Gail Tavill, Packaging & Food Systems Sustainability Consulting LLC.
The study — undertaken by the Committee on a Systems Approach to Reducing Consumer Food Waste — was sponsored by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the Walmart Foundation.